Let's face it; Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond, and James May are the luckiest guys in the world. Yeah, Ryan Reynolds was married to Scarlett Johansson, and Mark Zuckerberg has enough money to buy several European countries and had Aaron Sorkin write the movie based on his life, but the hosts of Top Gear get paid to drive the best cars in the world really fast, in the most exotic locations, with no pressure to win a race. How cool is that? And they're incredibly entertaining while they do it. The legion of Top Gear fans in the US will be pleased to note that the BBC has just released the season 18 of this fun car show in Region 1. All seven episodes as well as the India special are included along with some nice extra material. What more could you want?
For those who haven't heard of the program, Top Gear is one of the most popular (if not the most popular) shows in the world, syndicated in 170 countries and earning an estimated 350 million viewers per episode. That's 5% of the entire population of planet Earth. Pretty impressive. Yet the show is so simple: three hosts review very high end sports cars and then purchase a used automobile and compete in a challenge; some series of silly trials where they test the capabilities of the car they've chosen.
Why is the show so popular? It is because of the personalities of the three hosts. They're all a bit different, Clarkson is what we in the US think of as a typical Brit: tall, politically conservative, stiff upper lip and all that, while James May is the refined intellectual willing to discuss the why the overhead cam was such an important innovation (though he never gets the chance) and Hammond is the young, short, hip guy. But they all have a common love for cars, and what's more important, they play well off of each other and filling each show with hilarious banter.
This season starts off with a special, an episode devoted to one great journey. This time the trio is tackling India traveling from Mumbai to Delhi. The purported reason for the trek was to increase trade between the two countries. They each had 7000 Pounds to spend on a car (2-3 times more than they usually get) and so they got some pretty nice vehicles in comparison to their usual fare. Jeremy Clarkson drove a Jaguar XJS, James May was in a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow and Richard Hammond selected a late model Mini Cooper.
It was a good special, but not the greatest. Since the cars were pretty nice they didn't have to worry about them breaking down, which they didn't for the most part. There were some funny segments. At one point they decided to promote British commerce by placing home-made adverts on the side of a train they were traveling on. On one side they placed a banner that read "The United Kingdom promotes British I.T. for your company" and the other side proclaimed "Eat English muffins." Unfortunately when train cars separated the signs ripped, removing the last three letters from the latter sign and the first half of the former. Ahh,well, these things happen.
That incident prompted the Indian High Commission in London to formally complain to the BBC about the content of the program. Other sequences that were pointed out included when Clarkson demonstrated a pants press to a group of Indians at a fancy dress party by taking off his pants and pressing them. The politically incorrect Clarkson went further by demonstrating how he had turned the trunk of his car into a toilet and commented "This is perfect for India because everyone who comes here gets the trots." I think that does qualify as toilet humor.
The series itself has some nice moments too. The group checks out cars that are being made in China, including the fancifully named 47WR9231-3, and they have some drive around a track not by the Stig, but by his Chinese cousin, Fighting Stig.
Clarkson and Hammond are hired by the director of an action movie to create a car chase sequence, and that's one of the best segments of this set. Clarkson wants something realistic, while Hammond wants something exciting, like a car jumping off of a ramp into a helicopter. The director sides with Clarkson, but Hammond decides that he can still make his part exciting so he hires an air cannon to launch a car through the air. Meanwhile Clarkson takes his instructions a little too seriously. He has the villains who are being chased (Serbian killers) say (in broken English so the viewers will understand) "Turn off the Traction Control!" "How" By pushing the button for 10 seconds" followed by a ten second shot of a finger holding a button down. As he put it, if you didn't include that, every Jag owner would know that the whole scene was faked.
Of course they test some very cool and incredibly expensive cars, including a Ferrari FF, a Lamborghini Aventador, a McLaren MP4-12C, a Maserati Gran Turismo MC Stradale, and the Jaguar XFR. If none of that means anything to you, that's okay. You don't need to be a gear head to enjoy their tests.
Doctor Who fans will enjoy seeing Matt Smith in their "Star in a Reasonably Priced Car" segment, and will.i.am (The Black Eyed Peas) and Matt LeBlanc (Friends) also drive around their track among others.
Needless to say, their tame racing car driver is still a part of the show. "Some say he has 50,000 photographs... of his own camera. And that 60 years ago this week, he too became a Queen. All we know is he's called the Stig!"
If that's not enough, they zip across Italy in supercars, Hammond drives a NASCAR vehicle, Clarkson tests a Ferrari on a frozen, snow-covered lake, and there's an informative and touching tribute to the recently defunct car company, Saab.
The only thing I really dislike about the show is that it's pretty obvious that they fake some of the things that happen. The sign being torn on the train was planned, though the hosts act terribly surprised. Or how about when Hammond 'accidently' secures a winch to the bumper of his car rather than to the frame? Does anyone really think he'd make that mistake?? That makes the races and challenges a bit less exciting. When the three hosts compete in a race against a trio of maimed British soldiers, is there ever any question about who is going to win? Even so, you don't watch this show to see who wins; it's all about people who are racing.
Unfortunately this season of Top Gear is only available on DVD. Apparently the BBC is not going to release a Blu-ray in region A at this time.
The stereo sound is very good, with a fair amount of separation between the two channels, but I would have enjoyed a dedicated subwoofer channel to get more of the growl from some of the more energetic engines that they test.
The 1.78:1 anamorphic image looks very good. The colors are sharp, the lines are tight, and the blacks are nice and inky. It's an excellent looking disc.
Happily, they've included some extras with this set. First off there is the first episode to the second season of the US version of the show. *Yawn* It's worth watching, but a pale imitation of the original. There's a three minute promo/introduction to this season, another promo for episode two hosted by Hammond, reels of Matt LeBlanc and Michael Fassbender driving a McLaren sports car, some extra footage of James and Richard driving a classic Bentley followed by James giving a description of the car which is pretty interesting. The best extra however is entitled JC- Antelope. This is a few seconds that occurred between the rehearsal and filming where Jeremy, in classic Clarkson form, discusses how the area around the studio fills with people who act like antelope. Caustic and funny at the same time. It's great.
Another great set of shows. What can I say? If you haven't experienced Top Gear yet, this would be a great place to start. If you're familiar with the show, you know you'll want to get this so what are you waiting for? Highly Recommended.